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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Monday, July 2, 2007


Morocco is my favorite movie, and I've visited it on a regular basis over the last 35 years. When a movie becomes so much a part of one's life, one watches it differently: it becomes a psychic space to explore, and whole viewings might be devoted to coaxing details out of the background, or creating a new schema and seeing how extensively one can apply it. One of the things that makes film buff culture important to me is that many such movies are held in high collective regard, and we all have our own maps to these private worlds that we can access and compare at a moment's notice.

Here are a few new things that occurred to me about Morocco after seeing it on Saturday at MOMA:
  • The extras in the film really take up psychological space: hunching over tables in robes and turbans, fanning themselves silently in sweltering heat, impassive and unknowable. Unlike most extras, they are powerful, heavy, substantial.
  • For a film in which von Sternberg claimed that he tried to avoid any resemblance to reality, Morocco contains a fair amount of plausible detail. We hear characters speak Arabic, French, and Spanish, all languages that are prevalent in Morocco. French is spoken by aristocrats in the film, and Spanish by the peasant women who are the prey of the Legionnaires: I wonder whether this class distinction reflects a real-world stratification, as seems plausible. Many of the Legionnaires are German and speak with a German accent, which Wikipedia tells me is historically accurate. There is at least one piece of music in the film (for the erotic dance in the cafe in the film's penultimate scene) that sounds like European Orientalism, but perhaps this cafe caters to Europeans; one scene previous (Amy Jolly's visit to the hospital), we hear an authentic Arabic song and singer.
  • Many have noted how Sternberg's characters are forever playing idly with objects, with an air of detachment that suggests that their minds are on some abstraction even as their hands make a random connection to the physical. For some reason I had never noticed how this penchant makes one of the most powerful moments in the film: Tom Brown's proposition to Amy in her dressing room, the first of three times when Amy's conscious reservations about Tom blow away like smoke when reality tests her. After the proposition, and before she accepts, Amy hits the rim of the glass in her hands twice, as if testing to see that she is still in the material world.
  • All three lovers are used by love in different ways. Tom's realization that he is in love, his becoming "decent," means to him that he must avoid Amy: his conversion is partial, he still doesn't see himself as a fit partner. Amy is surprised by love again and again: though she acts like a madwoman on several occasions, she cannot get it through her head that she is now powerless. And for la Bessiere, of course, love is neither self-abnegation nor compulsion, but service.



Blogger Daniel said...

This is also one of my favorite movies. In regards to one of your observations, that characters seem to play with objects, this connects in my mind with Sternberg's emphasis on gestures. This emphasis begins most grandly in terms of gestures of behavior, Amy Jolly marching off at the end being most notable and emblematic, but I think can be traced down to turns of the head, bodily posture, and interaction with objects that are part of Sternberg's complex way of having his characters, who are so often masking their real selves or feelings, express themselves.

The one I most recently noted, and which unfortunately is not from Morocco, is Gloria Grahame's final gesture in Macao, flipping her cigarette away to signify signal her betrayal. I know this isn't quite what you are getting at, as you are talking about abstract mindstates interacting with elements of decor, but I think the link is still there, as this interaction is clued in as a gesture that help the audience see deeper into characters that are kept at a distance, whose motivations introverted and decisions strange (I never get over the strangeness of Cooper's about-face in Amy Jolly's dressing room, scrawling his goodbye on the mirror).

July 2, 2007 4:34 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Daniel - it's true that I was thinking about the way that some Sternberg gestures express a philosophical state of detachment (one that generally floats free of the characters and inhabits the film at large). But I agree that that's only one angle on the (vast) subject.

Sometimes there's no easy answer to the question "Who makes the gesture?" In the case of Amy striking the glass, I chose to think of the gesture as the character's, as reflecting Amy's mental state. The fact that I attributed to Amy a mental state that sounds a lot like Sternberg's sensibility is a clue that the signification is shifty.

In a different zone of the continuum, think about Amy's expression in the boat scene, as la Bessiere repacks her fallen bag for her. As if following stage directions too rotely, and rather impishly, Amy looks down at la Bessiere, then quickly out over the boat's prow, then down again. It's the kind of acting that we'll see much more of in Sternberg's films after Morocco. There's an aspect of camp here, and definitely humor: it's more the actor making the too-abrupt glances, not so much the character. And yet, if some behavior is being sent up, it's not an obvious movie cliche - certainly nothing that motivates such blatant distancing. Sternberg and Dietrich are lifting themselves a bit above the plot, above the mechanics of storytelling, having a little fun.

To connect this back to the tapping of the glass: one can attribute the exaggerated eye gestures to Amy, to the character, if one wants. There's a big hermaneutic gray zone in Sternberg's films, a place where character psychology and directorial expression cross back and forth. Does Tom Brown own the big gesture of putting a flower behind his ear? Does Amy own the gesture of kissing la Bessiere's female friend? To an extent, both characters are knowing...but characterization alone doesn't motivate the gestures adequately.

And then, moving all the way to the other end of the continuum, there are grand gestures that don't obviously have that bit of humorous distance. The ending comes to mind, of course: for instance, Amy's wild gesture of turning back to la Bessiere as she stands under the arch, throwing one arm over her head in melodramatic fashion. Here we're deeper into the realm of camp - and Susan Sontag made a point of using the American Sternberg-Dietrich films as a particular example of the phenomenon. Not being a natural when it comes to camp, it took me a number of years to realize that it's not all about laughing at the subject matter, that camp can be a way to pass quickly to big emotions. For me, that moment is very serious...but Sternberg and Dietrich are maintaining some distance from the gesture by stylizing it, and some viewers take the stylization as comedy. Clearly Amy owns the gesture: it's her anguish that propels Dietrich's arm. But I think we're still in that gray zone, where Sternberg and Dietrich are guiding us carefully and solemnly to the beating heart of melodrama.

A lot of the time I think that Sternberg wants less to help us see deeper into characters than to make us realize their unknowability. The scene of Tom Brown's dressing-room about-face, which you mention in this context, does contain a few clues to what might be motivating Tom: he overhears that he is standing in the way of Amy's union with la Bessiere; and he spots the fancy bracelet, evidence of the comfortable life that Amy could have. But, of course, all clear signs of decision are withheld: no close-ups, no change of attitude, no change of behavior, no sadness creeping in. All we see is a quintessentially Sternbergian sense of the lightness of physicality, an playful exaggeration of gesture, a sense of Tom stage-managing his own transit.

July 4, 2007 4:02 PM  
Blogger David said...

In terms of realism, there's a story that the King of Morocco was outraged when he saw the film, since he hadn't given Paramount permission to film in his domain. So HE was obviously convinced. Although this COULD be the invention of a publicity department...
Sternberg would later outrage a foreign power for real with THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN.

July 12, 2007 7:27 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

David: a variation of that story appears in Sternberg's autobiography, on p. 242. "In Cannes the Pasha of Marrakech once asked me why I had not visited him while in his domain. I told him I would have paid my respects had I ever been in Morocco, whereupon he said he had seen a film of mine and that it contained scenes photographed on streets that he recognized. He smiled when I told him that this was no more than an accidental resemblance, a flaw due to my lack of talent to avoid such similarity."

July 12, 2007 12:18 PM  
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